The problem

back to issue

HYDERABAD, like so many other feudal capitals, evokes images of charm and romance, a grandeur and splendour woven with legend which over the years has continued to inspire contemporary folklore. Popular renditions of the city, much like those of its counterpart city in the North, Lucknow, reminisce about the syncretistic Hindu-Muslim culture, a Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb, and an elite drawn across denominational divides that left behind not just iconic wonders like the Charminar, the Chowmahalla and the equally wondrous palaces and baradaris but a fusion cuisine marked for its distinction and the quaint speech, Deccani Urdu.

All these descriptions, staple fare in tourist brochures, are to a point true, but as the late C.V. Subba Rao, chronicler of the radical underside of the city, reminds us, beyond the glories of the Nizami era, buildings, pearls and the delectable kachi biryani and mirchi ka salan or bagarey baingan, ‘these images are part of a self-perpetuating mythology created by the literate’, and ‘it is now necessary to transcend the barriers created by inherited images.’ Not only is contemporary Hyderabad, a six million plus agglomeration, more and different from the erstwhile capital of the Asaf Jah dynasty, we need to revisit its history to grasp both the energy and tensions marking the populace and its popular culture. Equally, without understanding the relations between the city and its hinterland, more extractive than synergistic, we may miss out on its future.

It is often forgotten, particularly in elite accounts, that Hyderabad was a princely state, one which had to be forcibly incorporated into the Indian Union. The late entry of modern civic politics in an overwhelmingly feudal and courtly environment meant that the intermingling among the elite was rarely matched at popular levels. The inability of the Congress party to play an open role meant that public political space was taken over by the Muslim Majlis and its Hindu counter, the Arya Samaj. Further, the decision of the last Nizam, Osman Ali, to seek an independent destiny in the fading days of the Raj, in part egged on by ‘communal’ Muslim organizations, contributed to a deepening of the divide between the minority Muslim and majority Hindu populace. Finally, the developments post-accession left a vast section of the city’s Muslim underclass resourceless, bereft of the earlier patronage of the Nizam and Muslim nobility, and ghettoized. Unsurprisingly, as Ashutosh Varshney so tellingly captures in his Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life, Hyderabad soon emerged as a riot-prone city, a distinction now fortunately fading away.

Alongside the undoubted contributions of the Nizams, and ministers like the Salar Jung’s, or the English in the setting up of the twin city of Secunderabad, modern-day Hyderabad, as the capital of Andhra Pradesh, has been transformed by substantial infusions of capital, both material and intellectual, in the post-independence era. Site of important public sector units such as the BHEL, major defence establishments (DRDO), CSIR labs like the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, academic centres like the Central and Osmania Universities, as also research institutes like the Administrative Staff College of India, NIRD, ICRISAT, and more recently the Indian School of Business, the National Institute of Information Technology or the Law School, just to name a few, Hyderabad today is a vibrant megapolis, attracting vast numbers of young professionals for both employment and skill enhancement.

Equally of note is the role of the Telugu film industry and media, which over time have created a regional pride and culture, one which draws on not just the Nizami past but equally on the resources pumped in and the preferred aesthetic by the erstwhile landed gentry of the Reddys and Kammas. It is instructive that the Film City on its outskirts today attracts as many visitors as do the historical wonders of Charminar and Golconda Fort.

Little, however, had prepared the city and its denizens for the dramatic developments of the last two decades, both the building boom with its flyovers and commercial complexes surpassing the opulence of similar establishments elsewhere, and the spectacular rise of a regional political party, the Telugu Desam, as the principal challenger to the Congress. Other than shaking up the political establishment, the TDP, in particular the former chief minister, Chandrababu Naidu, attempted to position Hyderabad as the centre of the new economy, based more on computers, pharmaceuticals and bio-genetics than manufacturing industry.

Accompanying the major infrastructural boom has been the creation of a new corporate culture. Hyderabad not just pioneered the advent of the corporate, super-speciality hospital, it was the first city to comprehensively computerize its administration, not just in record keeping but also in the provision of municipal services through the e-sewa. It has even successfully replaced the earlier system of providing mid-day meals in municipal schools through part-time anganwadi workers by involving corporate foundations using centralized mechanized kitchens to supply hot, hygienic food in sealed containers through a fleet of container trucks, an unusual example of corporate social responsibility and public-private partnership. The longer term social implications of attempting to create a sanitized, middle class haven in what was once a sleepy city remain to be seen, but for the moment the efforts at re-invention seem to have generated an angst – of a feeling of exclusion among the less privileged and a nostalgia for the earlier adab among the elite.

Equally noteworthy have been the changes in the concerns and orientation of its Muslim underclass. For long ghettoized in the old city, concentrated either in old industry as craftsmen or unskilled service providers, the community was seen as stuck in the past, captive to communal leadership. Both the opening up of job opportunities in the Middle East and the steady growth of modern education, in particular English and computers, have today resulted in a far more materially secure and confident community. Unlike commonplace assertions, an increasing proportion of young Muslim girls, even if burqa-wearing, are today working in call centres and the BPO industry. True, Hyderabad is still seen as prone to communal appeals, including those of jehadi organizations, but as even a cursory examination of the local Urdu press reveals, the aspirational figures among the young are more tennis players like Sania Mirza than the leaders of Al Qaeda.

For all its vibrancy, there is little escaping the undercurrent of tension as the city continues to gobble up resources – both land and water – at a frenetic pace, in the process changing land use patterns, destroying local water bodies, and displacing both people and employment. Hyderabad today is sitting on a powder keg – the militancy of Maoist groups in the countryside matched by growing impatience of the urban underclass, unwilling to reconcile to the ostentatious display of wealth and consumption. And despite the TDP under Naidu facing a debacle in the last elections, the political class seems to have learnt few lessons.

Like all large cities, Hyderabad too displays many faces, with people inhabiting many worlds simultaneously. There are the glories of the past – the buildings, the crafts, the food and the tehzeeb. There is the vibrancy of the present, new modes of wealth creation and consumption, increasingly involving a cosmopolitan workforce. What shape this will take remains uncertain, but the city still retains its soul and generates fierce pride among its resident mulkis and migrants. Even if somewhat frayed, in part more myth and memory than fact, there is no gainsaying the languorous grace and welcoming spirit, just what makes Hyderabad so special. This issue of Seminar provides tantalizing glimpses of a city and its people, the glory of the past and the energy of the present.